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EYES ON THE PRIZE

A new global ideas competition seeks to radically speed up the reskilling of displaced workers

Virus Outbreak Unemployment
AP/Damian Dovarganes
No time to waste.
  • Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter

Among the many hard lessons of this pandemic, it’s become apparent that the usual modes of job training don’t work very well anymore. This is especially acute for the segment of the 36 million unemployed Americans who are now seeking to acquire skills for new careers. For most, paying tuition for a months- or years-long training program is out of the question.

New Profit, a Boston-based nonprofit with a venture philanthropy fund, in partnership with XPrize and MIT Solve, has launched a two-year, $6 million ideas competition to bridge the long, expensive gap between education and employment. The Future of Work Grand Challenge, as it’s called, aims to rapidly train 25,000 displaced workers and put them in living-wage jobs as quickly as possible.

The novel job-training paradigms discovered in the course of the competition, the organizers believe, will ultimately improve higher learning in the US, especially for those who live in places where quality education is hard to come by.

Speed is a key criteria, explains Angela Jackson, a partner at New Profit. “With Covid-19, the future of work became the present,” she says, noting how the unprecedented spike in unemployment has made launching the initiative more urgent. “We realized that many jobs disappeared overnight…Bills come on a monthly basis and we realized that any training we offered around the future of work needed to be rapid, cost efficient, and time efficient.”

Urgency is coded in the contest criteria:

The winning team will leverage novel solutions that will rapidly train 500 individuals in 60 days or less at no entry cost, place as many as possible within 60 days, ensure job retention of at least 90 days, and demonstrate exponential adoption by deploying the training solutions for 5,000 individuals in three industries.

Placement is also a crucial piece of the effort.

“What we’re hoping to do is offer validated solutions that are proven to help people not just to upskill, but to actually find a job,” Jackson says.

XPrize Foundation, the Los Angeles based nonprofit that kickstarted the private space travel industry, will spearhead the initiative’s Rapid Reskilling contest, while MIT’s social impact platform will run a six-month competition to crowdsource innovative programs to assist unemployed or underemployed workers to land better careers.

Jackson cites programs like the Boston-based Resilient Coders, which pays students while they learn to code and helps them find permanent jobs, as one ideal model. Another example is CodePath, which works with leading tech employers to give students at historically Black colleges the “unwritten insider curricula” on what it takes to succeed in those companies.

But the future of work doesn’t mean training everyone to be tech sector workers, Jackson notes. For instance, she points to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which uses a tech platform called Alia to give workers portable benefits and easier access to their wages. “When we think about the world, we need people to be doing a lot of different things, but we need to do it equitably and provide for their families doing the work of their passion.”

Emily Musil Church, executive director of education and learning at XPrize, says the competition organizers are keen to gather a diversity of ideas, especially from Black, Latin American, and other minority groups.

“We want ideas that are going to be game-changing,” she says. “The ideas could come from anybody. We go the same experts over and over—and if they knew how to solve it, it would’ve been solved.”

Interested teams need to register for the XPrize Rapid Reskilling competition by Nov. 20, 2020. Winners will be announced in January 2023. The deadline for the Reimagining Pathways to Employment organized by MIT is Nov. 9, 2020. Grants for that contest will be announced during a January 2021 pitch event in Austin, Texas.

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